Further perils of authenticity

Completely by accident awhile back I ran across this ad from Life magazine:

Heinz ad, 1958

Heinz ran that ad in August 1958, at the height of the popular interest in Pennsylvania Dutch food, when that cuisine was being made over in the popular imagination into a mishmash of generically comforting old-timey domesticity. And, of course, co-opted by the Culinary-Industrial Complex, because what hasn’t been? Today you may just (and justly) reel in horror from the thought of vinegared baked beans or of canned tomato soup with canned corn and a pretzel floated on top. Purists of 1958 might weep over the cheapening of a long tradition of sweet and sour accompaniments to a Sunday dinner or holiday feast, an array of homemade pickles, salads, and preserves. Store-bought wouldn’t do. By the time I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, though, aside from an occasional batch of home-pickled beets, the nearest I got to that tradition was commercial pickles on a salad bar. So to me, authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pickles meant a jar of locally processed chow chow.

a jar of chow chow

Today, even that much tradition is fast fading away, and some benighted soul clinging to the last tattered shreds of uncertain heritage might search in vain for chow chow on a salad bar, even if he hadn’t up and moved to the South.

One man’s authenticity, in other words, is another’s bastardization. And that paradox isn’t the product of industrial food. Continue reading “Further perils of authenticity”

Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost. Continue reading “Life and death (and soup) in the city”

Meat and mystery

Another day, another tale of mystery meat.

Nestle voluntarily recalled two of its Hot Pocket products as part of a larger meat recall….

These products may have been affected by a recall by Rancho Feeding Corp. last week of 8.7 million pounds of beef product.

Regulators said the company processed “diseased and unsound animals” without a full federal inspection, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA says the products were unfit for human consumption.

What, faced with such horror, are the temptations? One is to crawl back under the covers and hide, to gnaw our Hot Pockets in nurtured ignorance. Another is to raise the hue and cry, to demand regulation or retribution, after which (we hope, stupidly) all will again be well. A third is to run away, retreat, withdraw into a culinary monastery of one, refusing to eat anything that might be tainted.

All three temptations lead us wrong. All three reinforce the error that led wrong us in the first place — that raised livestock to disease and unsoundness, hashed them into “beef product,” flavored them with chemicals, wrapped them in pastry and called them dinner.

What is at bottom wrong with our food system is that it indulges our desire to believe ourselves separate, apart, above. Food is grown from mud and shit. Every living thing is nourished by the death of another, or of many others. We rely on an earth we cannot control for our sustenance and on the decency and goodwill of others to bring it to us. Nature is messy. Life is messy.

The supermarket permits none of this. Dinner is chopped, diced, sized, sorted, arranged, flavored, cheerfully labeled, engagingly presented, laboratory-fresh, untouched by human hands, neat and clean and ordered.

Bullshit. Continue reading “Meat and mystery”

Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness

19th-century cartoon of a glutton

A hundred-odd years ago, gluttony was a sin, but fat men could be seen merely as successful. We seem to have reversed the calculus.

Some of the new research on possible causes of obesity is fascinating. New theories emerge continually, many of them at best inconsistent and at worst contradictory. But what interests me more is the debate that research sparks, which seems, at least in the popular arena, to be less about what actually causes obesity than about whose fault it is. It’s a subtle but important difference: the former is (largely, at least) a scientific question; the latter makes it a political or a philosophical one — and is, it seems to me, a thoroughly unhelpful approach. Continue reading “Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness”

Hospitality at a fractured table

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

“It sure is hard to have people over to dinner these days,” the food writer lamented, at a talk I attended the other week. She told a sorry tale of a dinner party involving two vegetarians, their father who expected to be served meat because he couldn’t get any at home (“poor man”), and a guest who was lactose intolerant. Everyone chuckled. It’s becoming the stylish refrain of the decade, that people’s food choices and fad diets and principles and medical ailments have so splintered us that we can’t break bread together any more; the pot luck is devolving into a brown bag lunch. The New York Times reports on the troubles facing hosts and asks whose responsibility it is that everyone be served something they’re willing to eat; a blogger for an environmental website offers tips on avoiding processed foods at dinner parties. It’s a sad state of affairs for anyone who enjoys cooking, who enjoys cooking for friends, who would rather show love and appreciation through food than get all mushy about it, who is frankly looking for an excuse to spend half the day on a dish, that sort of effort being embarrassing unless offered up to others. It is also more than a little annoying to anyone raised to keep one’s own picky tastes to oneself when a guest in someone’s home — a leftover morsel of Victorian manners long grown cold and now, it seems, thrown away with last month’s meatloaf. But here we seem to be, and although a wise man hesitates to make a couple of news items into A Symbol Of Our Fallen Age, such is, after all, the point of the internet. So bear with me, because we’re not really just talking about food. Continue reading “Hospitality at a fractured table”

Standards and Stewards

I wrote this essay in 2003 and for various reasons am only now (January 2009) publishing it. Much has changed in six years: The market for organic food has grown tremendously, and alongside it the idea of “eating local.” Much also has been written, and some of the ideas here are more commonly discussed now than then. I would frame the essay differently today, and may one day reframe it in another context. But much else has not changed, and I believe the argument still sound.

You may find this too long to read online, and I’ve made a PDF available. Whichever version you read, I’d appreciate your comments.


Last spring my wife and I began raising ducks. We bought seven Khaki Campbell ducklings, set up a brooder in a spare room, raised them to adulthood, watch them take their first wobbly flight across the yard, and now each day collect their eggs for our table. When we have extra eggs — which is most of the time, for our ducks lay prodigiously — we give, sell, or barter them to friends. On one occasion, accepting a dozen eggs from me, a friend asked, “Are they organic?”

Well, I thought, it depends on what you mean. By a commonsense, dictionary definition, the eggs are organic; they are laid by ducks who are raised outdoors, who eat a diet that includes the bugs and tender greens that ducks naturally eat, and who are integrated into the life of our household. They are, I could have answered, part of an organic whole that includes my family, my local ecosystem, and now my friends and community.

But that isn’t what my friend meant, and so I answered as he expected. The eggs were not produced in accordance with the USDA’s organic standards, I explained, because the commercial feed that is the basis of their diet in winter and supplements it in summer was not mixed from organically grown grain. Organic duck feed is not widely available — as far as I can tell, it is not available at all. So no, they are not “organic” after all.

But, I told him, I can tell you anything you want to know about the ducks and how they were raised. You can come visit, if you want, and see how they are raised. Continue reading “Standards and Stewards”

On growing potatoes

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian.

When I write about gardening I sometimes, without meaning to, give the impression that I wake every morning to survey a vast domain of neatly tilled beds and a refrigerator bursting with home-grown produce. In fact we have very little space. We own an acre and a quarter, but nearly all of it is wooded; very little gets enough sun to support a garden — and most of that is in the backyard, which has the twin disadvantage of being underlaid by a septic field and being overrun by basset hounds. The former means we can’t dig, while the later means that anything we do plant will be dug up. Continue reading “On growing potatoes”

Beet greens

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.

When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again. Continue reading “Beet greens”

No such thing as a free lunch (literal edition)

It never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised by things like this: Kids in England don’t like the healthy lunches the schools are serving them. Why are they surprised that kids will happily accept a change in their routine that is shoved down their throats. (Of course, the same people who pushed for these changes are equally happy to shove things down the throats of adults they disagree with, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by any of it.)

As I see it, there are four major variables that contribute to the quality and desirability of food:

  • taste
  • healthfulness
  • ease of preparation
  • cost

The contribution of each variable to a food’s desirability is dependent on the individual in question, obviously, but as a first approximation, desirability is directly proportional to taste, healthfulness, and ease of preparation, and it is inversely proportional to cost. In other words, people tend to want food that tastes good, is good for them, is easy to prepare, and is cheap.

The problem is that these are not independent variables. Ease of preparation requires preprocessing that degrades healthfulness (unless you want to eat all raw foods). Cheap ingredients don’t taste as good and aren’t as good for you as expensive ones; as a rule, you get what you pay for. The cheapest and easiest way to take cheap ingredients of poor quality and make them taste good is to add fat and sugar — both of which our biology attracts us to, because humans evolved in times of scarcity not abundance — and salt, which enhances whatever flavor is present. All three in too great a quantity are bad for you.

To make everyone happy in the school lunch wars, we’d have to serve lunches that meet all four criteria. Activists and most parents want food that’s healthy; kids want it to taste good; schools need to keep the preparation as simple as possible; and schools and most parents want to keep costs down. But there simply isn’t much food that is tasty, healthy, cheap, and easy. I agree that schools ought not be serving junk and calling it dinner, but anyone who wants to improve the overall quality of school lunches needs to start from a realistic assessment of what’s possible and be prepared to work within those constraints.

Gourmet survivalist

car smashed by trees after the ice storm
(Photo by Justin Watt)

Last December we were hit with an ice storm unlike any storm I have ever seen. It began as snow early on a Wednesday afternoon as I draped the last of the Christmas lights over the holly bushes. By dusk the innocent snow had turned to the dreaded “wintry mix” that FCC regulations prohibit meteorologists from calling by a more appropriate term. By bedtime the trees were groaning; at 2:30 we were awakened by a vicious tearing sound and a crash: a tree had fallen on the power line to our house and ripped the line, assembly, and electric meter from the back wall. We called the electric company, an act of purest pollyannism. When the storm subsided, eight inches of ice had fallen. The evergreen boughs of our Southern pines caught much of that ice; weakened by months of drought, more of them lay on the ground (and on cars, and on houses) than after a category two hurricane six years before. None of the crashing limbs caused irreparable damage to our own property, but we lost running water for four days, electricity for nine. Continue reading “Gourmet survivalist”